Stella Eternum: London, Autumn 1999
how we looked
(myself, Miles Franklin, Momus, Robert Dye):
was always the dreamer, the one at the back of the class / front
room / broom cupboard (delete as applicable, in what passed for
my education) who had his mind on something else. The idea of
immortality through pop always appealed to me, although I guess
there was a time when I'd have taken up the offer from Jason
Donovan, or someone else of that ilk. When Momus first
announced the Stars Forever project, documented at http://www.demon.co.uk/momus/starscentral.html , early this year, I
initially had wild intentions of taking up the offer, but
realised I couldn't afford $1000, every song had already been
taken and I was nothing, anyway. I hadn't written "Seashore
and Horizon", I wasn't a gay writer obsessed with sailors
and I didn't need a song to propose to my lover. But Momus's
newsgroup, alt.fan.momus, convinced me that I could be something.
And so it turned out that, at 6.30 pm on Friday 10th September 1999, I was sitting alongside two of only three British Stars (out of 30) on the second floor of a bookshop in Oxford Street, London, watching a whippet-thin 39-year-old globalist Scot, looking 10 years younger, with an eyepatch, brown leather shirt, kilt and classic 1978 this-is-the-future digital watch. And at that moment, I felt like something ... in a sense, I too became, in my mind, a Star.
The songs of Nick Currie have always had an incredible impact on me, ever since I first picked up a copy of The Ultraconformist on the first day of 1997, experienced this darkened re-animation of the ghost of vaudeville (as opposed to Blur's laughable sentimentalisation of it) and my life was set in a different direction. If a genre is worth exploring, Momus has explored it. Most recently, picking up on the unfinished business of people as diverse as 70s prog band Gryphon, Cornelius, Serge Gainsbourg, Saint Etienne circa "Tiger Bay", The High Llamas, David Inglesfield (of whom more at http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/inglesfield.htm ) and even The Beta Band, he has created Analog Baroque, where the sounds and styles most often anaesthetised from any progression by their curators are re-animated, to run free with the spirit of the 60s and 70s' analog pioneers, especially those at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
September was the kind of day when Covent Garden looks its best,
certainly its most Mediterranean, closest to Momus's vision of
the New London ( http://www.demon.co.uk/momus/onpunk.html ). When I first met Robert
Dye and Miles Franklin before the show,
there was something fizzing in the heat, my second favourite
urban feel (after the freezing night, when Britain can, very
nearly, feel Scandinavian, and the other type of most cherished
childhood memory is recalled) but also something dirty. Low-down
sex. A kind of misleadingly elegant fucking.
"Harry K-Tel". "Coming In A Girl's Mouth". A
very Momus feeling.
So it was that after two hours of London gradually winding down from this mid-afternoon intensity, I saw a troubadour telling us he'd bought a kilt for the first time that day, quip that he was "rediscovering his roots" (but we knew it was a proudly inauthentic take on his roots, rather than the Jools Holland / Mojo magazine kind of thing), in front of a 25-year-old Italian analog synth, a recording began of an electronic sea shanty, and Nick Currie launched into a coruscating gay love affair with the military. This is the ultra-weird normality of Steven Zeeland. This was ancient material, once reinterpreted into a 70s radio novelty by Mike Oldfield, but here polluted by a rare primal urge. I'd call it rock'n'roll, if that wasn't such a horribly authentic concept. It started 45 minutes of brilliance.
He then went through some of the high points of Stars Forever, most emotionally the songs about Robert and Miles, but also the tributes to Jeff Koons, Adam Green, and "Tinnitus", which is the most explicit expression of his new-found globalist locality. We had the first appearance of the kilt and sword which has become a regular sight at more recent Momus shows, but this was no retreat from modernity. This was something new, something inspirational ... Plastic Highland. Also, at my request, we had "Minty Fresh", another example of Nick's sustained simultaneity of awareness, personalising the US indie label in the language of medieval English music.
But it's a bitter irony that the British have neglected the genius they hold within. Of course, it's not unknown for artists who invoke very British imagery in a more subtle way (as opposed to the flagwaving of Blur's "Parklife" and its ilk) to get greater appreciation elsewhere. Look at Robyn Hitchcock, look at late-period Morrissey. But Mozzer deserves his discrediting at home - he was rightly appreciated in Smiths days, when he presented a subtle and intelligent evocation of his experience, without the need for petty moans about social changes he happened to dislike ("Panic" excepted), and his rise in America after his ill-advised fantasies of a Britain without multi-culturalism shows how even the US indie scene is a sucker for the Tourist Board vision of Britain as an unchanging, all-white enclave, which of course it claims so often to be above.
But there seems to be something about Momus in particular - his globalism, his defiant opposition to the cult of laddism which has dominated the British media since 1994 and is only now beginning to fade, his treatment of sexuality as something perfectly natural rather than as a novelty to be sniggered over, whatever - which has made him, until very recently, a genius ignored in his own land. In Japan, he has had teenage girls chanting "MO-MUS! MO-MUS!" like they might greet a boy band here. In the US, he followed these London shows with his third full-scale tour in less than two years, receiving genuinely appreciative attention from the press and from many websites, playing live alongside the inspired Toog (Gilles Weinzaepflen, a talent in a tradition unique to France) and Kahimi Karie, for whom he has written several Japanese hits, and with whose latest songs he has achieved a wonderful reanimation of the seemingly dead language of prog rock. Similar appreciation (admittedly, never from huge audiences, but from identifiable and considerable cults) has greeted him in mainland Europe, but he has never done a full British tour, although he will probably play in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds and Brighton next year. By his own admission, he has an ambivalent, love-hate relationship with Britain, which in 1998 neglected him so much that his album The Little Red Songbook was not released here until several months after he had toured the album in the US and Japan.
But things seem to be changing. Momus has received a five-star review in Uncut magazine, a two-page feature in Time Out, has appeared on Channel 4 and BBC Choice and been approached by the usually dreadful Carlton TV (who might, incredibly, gain a reprieve from me if they employ him). And for those of us who can appreciate it, there is nothing like a Momus show. Whenever, wherever.
And then there was another one ...
At the Electricity Showrooms in Hoxton Square on Wednesday October 20th, I encountered Robert Dye and Miles Franklin once more, and also fellow Star Karin Komoto (who is as naively sensous as her effortlessly seductive song portrays her, believe me) while Nick lived up to everything I'd ever read about him. Talkative, witty, clever, civilized, articulate and full of life. Our conversation touched on Mark E. Smith, John Peel, Belle and Sebastian, Saint Etienne and the NME ... and went into more surprising, slightly more unexpected places as well.
Nick's actual performance (delayed, so shorter than planned) was a reflection of where he'd moved since our previous meeting - to the uncharted territory of Synthetic Baroque Prog Pop. The four new songs for Kahimi Karie are snapshots of one of the most unexpected and yet perfectly-timed developments in his career thus far, which, like the current music of David Inglesfield ( http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/inglesfield.htm ), is the sound of prog rock finally escaping its post-punk obscurity, and being recognised as the brave, anti-purist fusion of past and future that it was at its best (although, as mentioned elsewhere, there was a lot of chaff amid the wheat).
"The Seventh Wife of Henry VIII" might veer a little too close to pastiche, with its analog synth widdling obviously inspired by Rick Wakeman's similarly-titled opus. It might be slightly too much in debt to its source, but simply hearing this fascinating but oft-misunderstood part of English history redefined, and hearing "Greensleeves" removed from its usual connotations, is reason enough to love it. The jaunty "Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan" can irritate, with its throwing of Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd album titles and a Moody Blues song title into the lyrics more as an "I've rediscovered prog" gesture than because it can genuinely take the song anywhere new, but more than any other of these songs, it seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It embodies the meeting of the Distant Past and the Far Future, never removed from each other because of the opposed "incongruity", that Nick sees in Japan, acknowledging that the future, far from dismissing what had come before as we once dreamed, will in fact resemble a spooky reinvention of that past.
"The Lady of Shalott" is a plaintive-into-passionate opener to this quintet, and "Pygmalism" was possibly the most emotive live Momus moment yet, as Nick strained to reach the top note of "I'm your via-graaa". And these have got to be the best Kahimi Karie songs so far. All the lounge / easy-listening styles of the early songs (with their implications of the 60s jetset, although they did acknolwedge the emptiness at the heart of it far more than their sniggering contemporaries) have gone, replaced by the closest to heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism that either Nick or KK will ever get. Sadly missing was the most joyous of the new songs, the electronic jig of "Journey to the Centre of Me" (a title reflecting the self-discovery these songs are for both their writer and their eventual singer) but its absence was a minor quibble.
I'm writing this listening to the Radio 4 version of The Children of Green Knowe, with its music by the Fratelli Brothers, a wondrous recreation of English medievalism (the book, like "Minty Fresh", quotes "Green grow the rushes oh"). I still take the innocent pleasure in all this I took when I was 7, but now I imagine a spooky 21st-century version of Green Knowe, with Toby, Alexander and Linnet playing fake flutes, using timeslipped ZX81 computers, and their harpsichords being analog synths underneath. Now, I'm no longer content to leave medievalisms where I find them ... I feel the urge to put them through a filter. And when I imagined these songs sung by a once self-consciously innocent Japanese girl, escaping the remains of those ancient attitudes to women that survive in her country, reaching maturity, their essence became complete.
After "Tinnitus", "Jeff Koons", and, inevitably, "Robert Dye" and "Miles Franklin", that was it - a vaudevillian's departure, then on to the Vaudeville tour of the US and Canada, the Sterne Fur Immer tour of Germany, and an ever-increasing band of devotees.
So what next? http://www.demon.co.uk/momus/news.html says it all, but the first ever full UK Momus tour (Manchester-Glasgow-Nottingham-Brighton-London) in February 2000, and then he will appear in cabaret in New York as the Earl of Amiga in Electronics in the 18th Century, a fantasia on the continuum between the elegance of earlier centuries and the electronics of the one we've just entered. He should thrill us again soon after that as well. This man moves fast. Keep up.
Robin Carmody, December 1999
a final door you open:
you're looking for a way out ...
call me ... firstname.lastname@example.org